A fresh start for demobilized Rwandan soldiers
Thousands of Rwandans from the District of Rubavu have been left homeless in recent years by flooding and landslides caused by exceptionally heavy rains. In March this year, Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisoa from UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme travelled to Rwanda’s Western Province to see for herself how far rehabilitation had progressed in one of the worst-hit areas, Mount Rubavu; 15 months earlier, UNESCO had financed a tree-planting course for 70 demobilized soldiers, many of them women.
Mont Rubavu is situated in Gisenyi, a city of more than 100 000 inhabitants which shares the highest lake in Africa, Lake Kivu, with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The hillside was once covered in rich vegetation but trees had been felled over time to make room for urbanization and small-scale agriculture. When torrential rains hit in April 2010, there was little to retain the soils. The resulting landslide swept away the homes and livelihoods of 1184 families.
The government subsequently launched a resettlement programme for the homeless. As Mount Rubavu was deemed unsafe for urban development, it was decided to reforest the hillside and turn it into a recreational park.
In December 2010, UNESCO financed a five-day training course for the population. ‘Although most of the district’s inhabitants are small farmers,’ Raondry Rakotoarisoa explains, ‘we deliberately targeted demobilized soldiers, in order to give them marketable skills.’ The course was run by the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), which is also supervising the rehabilitation of the site.
The trainees discovered the advantages of levelling the steep slopes into horizontall terraces, in order for the rain to penetrate the hillside rather than running off the surface. The former soldiers were shown how to plant endemic bamboo, which is an excellent anchor for soil and so fast-growing that it can colonize a hillside within months. Ornamental tree varieties like Jacaranda were also planted on the terraces to provide shade, as well as palm trees and fruit trees like papaya. The trainees also learned how to border the terraces using stones recovered from destroyed homes.
The theoretical component of the course included training in how to set up and run a small business, in this case tree nurseries. They were taught how to organize themselves into cooperatives and respond to a call for tenders from REMA for supplying seedlings to the district.
‘When I visited Mont Rubavu in March this year,’ says Raondry Rakotoarisoa, ‘I was pleased to see how far the rehabilitation had come. I met not only the trainees but also the indirect beneficiaries, people who have been employed by the district over the past year to plant Kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum) and reforest the area. Endemic Kikuyu grass is ideal for rehabilitating soils, as it is rich in nutrients. It also produces a soft lawn that, when cut, can be fed to cattle.’
The project is part of REMA’s broader plan to build environmental awareness and develop a partnership with the population. It is hoped that the rehabilitation of Mount Rubavu will stimulate the economy by creating a second tourist attraction to complement Lake Kivu.